Thursday, December 5, 2013

Frozen: Thawed a bit too soon

Frozen (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG, and quite needlessly, for action and mild rude humor

By Derrick Bang

Disney’s animated films haven’t been such a much of late, with little of note since 2010’s Tangled. The studio’s traditional animation department has been overshadowed by its Pixar colleagues, who’ve demonstrated a far better understanding of good storytelling.

As Anna searches for her sister, she's first joined by Kristoff and his loyal reindeer Sven;
they then encounter a loving snowman named Olaf, who has been brought to life via
the same magic that has brought a life-threatening winter to the entire land.
I therefore was delighted by the opening act of Frozen, which evokes pleasant memories of the Broadway-esque musical atmosphere delivered so well by Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and the next several features that contributed to Disney’s lock on the 1990s. The prologue of Frozen feels much like Beauty and the Beast, as it establishes key character relationships and the underlying fairy-tale curse that will propel the plot, and this new film also offers several lyrically clever tunes by Tony Award-winner Robert Lopez (The Book of Mormon, Avenue Q) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez.

Best of all — at least, at first — these vocals are well integrated into the action, smoothly supplementing the drama in a manner that feels natural.

Alas, that deft marriage of story and song becomes increasingly contrived as we move into the second act, by which point each new tune is greeted with resignation. (“Seriously? Another one?”)

Director/scripters Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee — with an assist from Shane Morris on the story — also lose their narrative’s dramatic heft as we skate into the climactic third act. The suspense wanes, in part because their story lacks a stylishly conniving villain in the mold of Gaston (Beauty and the Beast) or Jafar (Aladdin); this film’s simpering Duke of Weselton hardly qualifies.

(Yes, I’m well aware of the climactic twist. But it’s too little, too late.)

Instead, the drama’s primary threat emanates from one of the heroines, who undergoes a reluctant transformation very much in the mold of Elphaba, in Wicked ... which may not be a coincidence, since that Broadway role was played by Idina Menzel, who also voices the character under discussion in Frozen.

Déjà vu, anyone?

Fairy tale fans who fondly recall Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen will be hard-pressed to find anything familiar in this narrative, except (to a degree) the core premise. Not necessarily a problem, of course, as long as the re-invention is similarly imaginative.

The film opens with a poignant prologue that introduces Elsa and her younger sister, Anna, as children. Elsa was born with the power to create snow and ice, and the two girls delight in building snowmen and skating on the frozen floors of their palace home. But Elsa cannot control her power, and when she unintentionally injures her sister, their parents — the king and queen of Arendelle, a fairy-tale kingdom in Norway — employ some magic to remove Anna’s memory of the incident, and of Elsa’s gift.

Worse yet, Elsa is locked away in her room, lest she wreak even greater havoc with the icy touch that becomes stronger as the girls grow up. This enforced isolation haunts them, since Anna doesn’t understand why her best friend has deserted her: a dynamic poignantly rendered in the sweet song “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”

Ah, but the best intentions always go awry in fairy tales. Eventually, via the machinations of fate, Elsa (voiced now by Menzel) must assume the throne of Arendelle. This requires a public appearance for both sisters, which couldn’t delight Anna (Kristen Bell) more; she falls head over heels in love with Hans (Santino Fontana), a handsome young royal from a neighboring kingdom, who attends the coronation in the company of numerous other dignitaries (including the aforementioned Duke of Weselton).

Disaster strikes, with Elsa branded a monster; she banishes herself to an ice palace of her own creation, high in the surrounding mountains, while the citizens of Arendelle become ever colder in the throes of an all-encompassing winter.

Determined to correct this dire turn of events, and convinced that only she can calm her sister, Anna takes off in pursuit. Along the way, she encounters a good-hearted outdoors-y lug named Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his best friend Sven, a reindeer with the heart of a Labrador. Sven may not talk, but his expressive features speak volumes; he’s every bit as entertaining as the equally marvelous horse in Tangled.

This merry band soon is augmented by Olaf (Josh Gad), a hilarious little snowman who likes “warm hugs” and bears an uncanny resemblance to the snowmen Elsa and Anna once built, as little girls. Olaf makes a hilarious sidekick, and Gad brings him to life with quite a flourish. Credit to Buck and Lee, as well, for not over-using Olaf; he deftly supports but never overshadows the stars or core storyline.

Indeed, the voice talent is excellent. Bell, still fondly remembered as TV’s Veronica Mars, brings considerable warmth and pathos to Anna, and the Disney animators match her emotional depth with equally expressive features. (All the human characters here have the large, animé-inspired eyes that are so adept at melting our hearts.)

Menzel holds back until Elsa’s reluctant epiphany — the decision to embrace her powers, rather than conceal them — which is heralded by her power-ballad solo, “Let It Go.” Even then, however, the character doesn’t quite catch fire; we grieve for the tragedy that her undesired powers have created, but her resulting behavior isn’t all that interesting, from a dramatic standpoint.

Groff’s Kristoff is engaging in the “reluctant hero” mold so beloved by such tales, and Fontana is suitably dazzling as the good-looking Hans; he and Bell strike winsomely romantic sparks with their duet, “Love Is an Open Door.”

Chris Williams is a hoot as the voice of a sidebar character, the good-natured owner of Wandering Oaken’s Trading Post and Sauna, who suddenly finds himself with a surplus of summer supplies during this most unexpected winter.

On the other hand, a needlessly silly interlude with a troll clan is time-wasting filler, and the less said about their song — “Fixer Upper” — the better. With that sequence in mind, this 108-minute film could have used additional tightening ... or perhaps the problem derives from spending too much time with supplementary characters, at the expense of better delineating those who matter the most.

I’m also a bit bewildered by the chanted, foreign-language chorale that opens and closes the film, which I believe is called “Vuelie.” It sounds decidedly Native American, perhaps Inuit; whatever the intention, it’s an odd choice, given the rest of the score.

Although Frozen ultimately doesn’t quite live up to its promise, you’ll not be disappointed by Get a Horse, the 6-minute short that precedes the film. This amazing cartoon at first appears to be a “discovered” black-and-white short from the late 1920s, when Mickey and Minnie Mouse first burst onto the scene, complete with long-gone friends such as Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow.

But once the villainous Peg-Leg Pete enters the fray ... well, to say more would spoil the surprise. Let’s just say this cartoon builds to a ferociously frantic and funny finale.

I wish Frozen were equally satisfying, although — mind you — it’s certainly enjoyable, and definitely a family-friendly option for the holiday season. One simply expects better, with Pixar’s John Lasseter serving as executive producer.

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